SCIENTISTS in Scotland have been given almost £1 million to develop techniques to cut down on the use of animal testing in research.
The money has been granted to three projects at Scottish research institutes aiming to reduce the need to use creatures such as mice and fish to develop treatments for disease.
The grants were announced as new Home Office figures revealed that 3.6 million scientific procedures were carried out on animals during 2009.
This was a 1 per cent drop on the year before, but still meant that 2.6 million mice were used in experiments, 3,644 macaque monkeys, 619 marmosets and tamarins, 19,000 guinea pigs and 38,000 sheep.
The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), funded by the government and the private sector, yesterday awarded almost 1m to schemes in Scotland to try to reduce the use of animals in research.
A team led by Dr Peter Hohenstein at the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh was given 430,000. It is carrying out research into how to reduce the number of mice used in complex genetic experiments.
In the past decade, the use of genetically-modified mice has become standard practice to study disease and test drugs in many research institutes. However, this has seen the number of mice killed in experiments rocket - by 210,000, or 9 per cent, over the past year alone.
The scientists point out that one reason for the increase is because that in more complex experiments, most mice that are modified do not turn out to have the genetic make-up required for the tests, so are immediately culled without being used.
The Edinburgh scientists are hoping to overcome this problem by developing a technique to use embryonic stem cells to create mice that have all the mutations required, so that all those born are actually used.
Dr Hohenstein said: "You get a situation where something like 90 per cent of animals do not have all the mutations that you need, so they are basically useless.
"They are killed as soon as they are born. We are hoping to be able to come to a situation where we no longer have all that wastage."
Professor Christopher Secombes, a leading fish biologist at the University of Aberdeen, was awarded 157,000 to find new ways to test vaccines used to protect farmed fish from disease, without the need to use fish.
And a team from the University of Glasgow is trying to work out how to use cells from fly intestines instead of mice to carry out tests for how to treat colorectal cancer. It was given 350,528 to fund the research.
NC3Rs chief executive Dr Vicky Robinson said: "In recent years, the number of animals used for experiments has increased and now is an especially important time to be looking at ways to bring the numbers down.
"We must continue to involve the UK's brightest minds in this challenge and the work of the NC3Rs will help achieve this."
Animal rights groups hit out yesterday at the level of animal testing that continues across the UK.
The latest statistics from the Home Office showed that even though there had been a 1 per cent reduction in animal testing procedures from 2008 to 2009, the number was 33 per cent higher in 2009 than it was a decade ago.
This was mainly due to the use of breeding to produce genetically-modified animals - mainly mice. Breeding to create genetically-modified animals increased by 10 per cent to 1.5 million procedures between 2008 and 2009.
Most of the animals were used for immunological studies, pharmaceutical research and development and cancer research.
The Home Office pointed out that dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates were used in fewer than 1 per cent of the procedures.
However, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav) highlighted that most of the experiments were carried out without any anaesthesia.
Buav chief executive Michelle Thew said: "The UK should be leading the way in reducing animal testing. Unfortunately, these latest statistics show there is a long way to go. Millions of animals continue to suffer and die in UK laboratories."
And Troy Seidle, director of research and toxicology for Humane Society International, said the numbers were "unacceptably high".